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Official Review by Sean MacDonald, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
The West Indies is a collection of Caribbean nations and territories that has been misnamed since Columbus first visited back in 1492. It is not an official federation in political terms, but does wield power in the sporting world through the West Indies cricket team. Simply put, these small countries would not yield enough players individually to be competitive on the international stage, but when combined into one squad, they can do battle with some of the giants of cricket. Historical greats from the West Indies include Sir Garfield Sobers, Brian Lara, and Sir Vivian Richards; names that mean little to those who have not followed the sport, but who are national heroes in their home countries and members of the International Cricket Council (ICC) Hall of Fame.
The West Indies cricket team, known as the Windies among fans, contains players from 15 countries and dependencies in the Caribbean and South America. Of these, 10 have a stadium that has been used in an international cricket match: Antigua (2), Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana (2), Jamaica, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Trinidad. When the West Indies hosts a test series, they will play each match in a different nation, an ideal situation for a fan who wants to explore these destinations, all of which are easily accessible from the east coast of the United States and Canada.
In 2015, the Windies hosted England in a three-test set that began at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua (a draw), moved to the National Cricket Stadium in Grenada (England victorious) and finished at the Kensington Oval in Barbados (Windies winning in just 3 days). Stadium Journey was fortunate enough to attend days 2 and 3 of that last test and offers a review of the experience.
The Kensington Oval was originally constructed in 1871, but was completely rebuilt in 2006 for the 2007 Cricket World Cup, where it hosted the final. It now holds about 26,000 fans, who are seated in separate stands. It is generally difficult to move between stands, though some are within the same area. This review discusses the Greenidge & Haynes Stand (two levels, mostly covered); other stands are the Hewitt & Innis Stand (which shares the same concession area as Greenidge &. Haynes but is completely uncovered), the Worrell Weekes Walcott Stand (known as the 3Ws and offering views behind the bowler), and the Hall & Griffith Stand, also uncovered. There is also a Party Stand that is more expensive but includes all you can eat and drink and is the choice of those whose prime purpose is to party the day away.
The Kensington Oval is also used in the Caribbean Premier League (20/20 cricket with the Barbados Tridents the home club), which will likely have a different feel with far fewer visiting fans than a test match, so keep that in mind if you pay a visit for the CPL.
All prices are in Barbados dollars (BBD), with the exchange rate fixed at 2 BBD to 1 USD.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
There are about two dozen concessions built into the outer wall, most of which are selling similar products at similar prices. Hot dogs ($6) and hamburgers ($8) are popular choices, but for those wishing to find something a bit more local, the Mac Pie ($7) is the recommended option. This is macaroni and cheese baked into a pie sheet and it is as good as it sounds. Starchy heaven where a well-timed purchase can last you most of the day.
Fried chicken is also on many a plate, and there are plenty of other menu items that differ by concession, though they tend to sell out in the afternoon session. As a typical day of test cricket lasts from 10am until 5 pm or later, you can have all three meals here, so check out each concession and make friends with the owners of the one you like best.
Banks beer (the local favorite) is available for as low as $3 (the same price as bottled water) while soft drinks are $4. There is also a full liquor concession selling bottles of rum and other spirits as Barbados has some liberal drinking laws. Should the seven hours of cricket not be enough time for you to finish your bottle, you can bring it home with you.
Test cricket takes a long time, so you want to be comfortable. The seats here are simple and plastic, but I found that sitting for several hours did not leave me any worse for wear at days end. There is enough leg room, and you can walk between seats to move up or down a row. There are no cup holders or any other amenities that you might expect in a venue in the States.
The key here is to get a seat in a covered area, to avoid being in the sun for the whole day. Most of the Greenidge & Haynes Stand is covered, and you can easily find an open seat in the shade even if your ticket is in the lower rows that are uncovered. There are about 20 rows in this stand, with only the first four or five unshaded for the early part of the day. Some fans stand along the small concourse at the top when needing a break from the sun or their seat. No matter what, bring sunscreen and a hat.
Cricket days are separated into three sessions with two distinct breaks: morning play runs from 10:00 until noon (break for lunch), afternoon from 12:40-2:40 (break for tea), and evening from 3:00 until the close of play, which is usually after 5:00. During the breaks, fans mingle in the plaza outside the seating bowl and purchase their own meals, so there is no entertainment on the ground itself, unlike intermissions at a hockey game. During play, a large scoreboard shows replays, birthday greetings, and ads but doesn't bother with any cheap ploys to get fans to cheer; they know the game and know when to make noise and when to watch expectantly.
What makes Kensington Oval so enjoyable is the weather. Barbados days are consistent, with temperatures around 90F and a light breeze blowing through. The match unfolds in front of you, slowly but gradually runs are compiled while wickets occasionally fall, and before you know it the day has passed. It is a unique experience in the sporting world and this is one of the best places to enjoy that experience.
The ground is in the southwest corner of Bridgetown, the capital city of Barbados. The most notable nearby attraction is the Mount Gay Rum Tour, about a half-mile north along Spring Garden Highway. There is not much else in the immediate vicinity, although a 15-20 minute walk south will take you to some eateries next to the water, such as the Marina Bar and Restaurant in Bridge House. Depending on the day of the week, you might pass some farmer markets on the streets, but beware that Sunday is pretty empty in Bridgetown.
Further afield you can find more familiar haunts. Most notable are two sports bars along Highway 7 south of town: Bubba's and Bert's. Both offer western pub food and drinks with TVs tuned to American and European sports; the flying fish burger is the best local option. Note that Bert's is owned by Ottawa Senators maven Eugene Melnyk and caters to hockey fans, while Bubba's has a wider variety of sports to watch. Just past these is the St. Lawrence Gap, a waterside thoroughfare with several nighttime establishments that attract both tourists and locals.
Finally, if you are in Barbados on Friday, stop by the Fish Fry in Oistins, during which any number of small restaurants will serve you some great seafood at very cheap prices. Get there early to avoid waiting.
With England the tourists, the crowd was evenly split between their supporters and local fans. There was good spirit from both sides, as there often is in cricket. It is a gentleman's game and this generally is felt within the seating area, with few taunts or other trouble spotted. One large gentleman disrobed to his shorts and rambled onto the ground during a break in the action, eliciting much laughter from those present before he was quickly taken away. This is not uncommon given the length of the match and the affordability of alcohol. Despite this intrusion, cricket fans are not generally obnoxious, at least during the match, and I found that during my time here, the English carried themselves well, whether inside or outside the ground. They are knowledgeable and travel well, with the Barmy Army the most obvious example, cheering and singing throughout the match and applauding their team even though they ended up suffering an embarrassing loss.
Windies fans are polite in victory and willing to discuss the match or the sport with anyone showing an interest, you will find that visiting a local bar during the test will provide plenty of opportunities to study up on the game.
Before discussing how to reach Kensington Oval, a quick word on transportation in Barbados. You may want to take a taxi wherever you go, but there are no meters so you have to negotiate the rate in advance. This can add up quickly, but there are much cheaper options that will work if you don't mind some minor discomfort. Buses and minibuses ply the roadways but are not particularly frequent, though the routes and stops are easy to understand.
If you are lucky enough to be staying close to a stop, the recommended option is the ZR (pronounced Zed-R), small white mini-vans with a red stripe along the side. These are very frequent, driven wildly, with music blaring from the loudspeakers, and locals getting on or off every few seconds; in other words a true Bajan experience. The routes are numbered but not published, so you will need to ask your hotel about the nearest stop. When you see him approaching (the number on the front of the vehicle will be the route), wave your arm and get on. More than likely he will stop and offer you a ride anyway, they are very aggressive in finding fares, and will often back up on a road to pick up someone down a side street. The fare is $2 and the driver will collect it when you get off, and give change too (some ZRs have a fare collector who will take your cash during the ride). For those staying on the South Coast, the #11 ZR is a great way to get into town quickly and cheaply, and there are always ZRs returning late into the evening.
With that in mind, the best way to get to Kensington Oval really depends on where you are staying. It is easily walkable from the Cheapside Minibus and ZR terminal, which serves locations on the North and West Coast. If you are coming from the South Coast, your ZR will terminate at Nursery, from where you can grab another ZR to the Oval, or walk about 1.5 miles through Bridgetown, something that I recommend doing once. However, if your accommodation is not near a ZR stop, you may have to resort to a bus or cab, someone at your hotel will be able to give you the best advice. During a test, there are so many visitors that it is hard to get lost here and any local resident will likely be happy to point you in the right direction.
Once inside the ground, getting around is easy, though again you are limited to your stand. The exterior plazas do get busy during lunch and tea, but not so much as to obstruct you. You can also leave the ground (ensuring that you get a re-entry pass) during the day should you want to explore nearby.
There are plenty of restrooms, though lines will briefly form during lunch and tea.
Tickets prices are listed in USD and were $15-$20 on the tickets I saw. Party Stand tickets were at least $75 according to some other fans, though I heard higher prices quoted. Before reaching the box office though, talk to the local touts, most of whom will offer a ticket for around the same price as at the box office. If you haggle, you might save a couple of bucks. Regardless, it is incredibly cheap for an entire day of sport. When you combine the food, the weather, and the fans, you will have one of your most memorable stadium visits that is more than worth the money spent.
Just outside the main entrance is a statue of Sir Garfield Sobers, one of the greats of the game. Stop by to check it out before entering.
Tours are given at the Oval when there are no matches being played, so if you happen to be in Barbados while there is no cricket, consider stopping by to see the entire ground, something you can't do during the actual test.
A final point for the unique design of the 3Ws stand, which looks like a spaceship and really adds a sense of modernity to a venue that is over 140 years old.
Test cricket is not for everyone, what with matches lasting seven hours a day for up to five straight days. Of course, you don't need to see every ball, and many fans visit the stadium for a day or two, preferring to spend their remaining time touring the sights. Whatever your preference, Kensington Oval provides a great place to see cricket, and Barbados is an ideal surrounding, with plenty to see and do on your off days. Try to get tickets to different stands if you attend on multiple days (including the Party Stand if you are traveling with a large group of friends who enjoy day-long drinking sessions). Once inside, sit back, relax and enjoy a bit of Caribbean hospitality while learning about the great game of cricket.
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